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Researcher Studies How Parent-Infant Neural Attunement Supports Healthy Development

June 24, 2022 

Key Findings 

  • Speech patterns, gaze, and facial expressions increase brain wave attunement (“neural synchrony”) between adults and babies.
  • Neural synchrony promotes healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development.

 

We all recognize “baby talk;” that high-pitched, singsong speaking voice that we lapse into around an infant. Whether or not we are cognizant of the reason why we do this, research into these specialized patterns of communication show that it contributes to the groundwork for positive infant brain development. The predictable, melodic patterns help to bring parents’ and babies’ brains into a state of mutual alignment, or “neural synchrony.” When these and other important early social connections falter, the trajectory of a child’s brain development could be derailed. 

This is the focus of Dr. Victoria Leong’s research at the Learning through Interpersonal Neural Communication, (Baby-LINC) Lab. Dr. Leong received the 2022 FABBS Early Career Award as nominated by the International Congress of Infant Studies (ICIS), for pioneering the breakthrough technique, dyadic-EEG (or dual-electroencephalography), to study this fine-grained neural synchronization. 

Neural synchrony means that parents’ and infants’ brains work in harmony, almost like dancing. “One dancer steps forward while another steps back. The behaviors are complementary, but they are not always the same. Likewise, when brains are in synchrony, there are temporal contingencies between the partners’ brain patterns, which suggest that they are working as one coordinated unit,” Dr. Leong explains. 

(Photo credit: University of Cambridge) Adapted from the Baby-LINC Lab Blog.

Dr. Leong’s dyadic-EEG studies have revealed that certain social behaviors, like singing nursery rhymes and sharing direct eye contact, can increase levels of neural synchrony. This may play a pivotal role in age-appropriate learning, cognition, and social-emotional development. Moments in which there is a high degree of synchronicity could indicate that the infant brain is “ready to learn,” and this principle could also extend throughout the lifespan. 

To look at leader-follower relationships in synchrony, Dr. Leong uses directional metrics. These methods reveal that “the child is actually doing a lot of the initiation and seeking out what they want to engage with, and in some instances, the parents’ role is best served when they follow the child’s direction.” Over time, coordination between parent and infant improves which can support development of the child’s executive function and cognitive control skills. 

Understanding these mutual attunement processes may also be instrumental in helping to identify atypical patterns of neurodevelopment. We routinely assess physical aspects of a child’s development such as their weight, hearing, or eyesight. It may be just as important to assess early psychosocial development.  

Most clinical assessments for social developmental disorders, such as Autism, cannot be administered until 18 to 24 months of age. However, “we know the antecedents of atypical social behaviors exist even in infancy. Early indicators – such as brain activity, physiological arousal, and gaze patterns – may emerge early in life. It may be possible to aggregate multiple indicators into ‘sociometric profiles’ that could indicate whether a child is at risk of atypical psychosocial development,” says Dr. Leong.  

Perhaps these tools could even exist in the home or the classroom. Picture a toy that can give us information about the child’s pattern of engagement when he or she plays with it. Knowing this might indicate if a child is responding in a normative way. 

In addition to developing novel techniques for early screening, Dr. Leong was recently awarded a grant to reverse-engineer these findings in a rodent model. Using optogenetics (the use of light to modify the activity of genetically-defined neurons) in mice, Dr. Leong can take this research deeper, in order to understand how neural synchrony works. “The rodent model gives high-precision temporal and spatial control over neural circuits, allowing us to test what generates synchrony and how this affects social behavior,” Leong shared.  

Dr. Leong’s research has cast fresh light on the brain mechanisms that operate when parents and babies interact. As we begin to understand the nuances of synchronicity, we can implement practical applications, toys, and screening tools, while continuing to explore the precise mechanisms. All of this makes a huge difference in the lives of at-risk children and families. 

Dr. Victoria Leong is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Medicine at Nanyang Technological University, Honorary Senior Fellow at the Cambridge University Department of Pediatrics, and Deputy Director of the Cambridge-NTU Center for Lifelong Learning and Individualized Cognition. Her groundbreaking work has been published in top-tier journals such as PNAS, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, and PLoS Biology. She has been awarded over SGD$10 million in research funding from agencies in the UK and Singapore. She also served as a scientific advisor for the popular Netflix documentary “Babies.” Dr. Leong spent some of her training in the lab of Professor Charles Nelson at Boston’s Children Hospital, which has received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  

Potential for Future Impact

  • Improved screening in medical settings, at home, and in the classroom.
  • Development of early childhood interventions when babies display atypical psychosocial development.
  • A precise understanding of the underlying mechanisms that uphold neural synchrony.


Dr. Victoria Leong is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the International Congress of Infant Studies (ICIS).

XXIII ICIS 2022: Developmental Cascades took place in Ottawa, Canada, on July 7 – 10, 2022. See more about the conference here


Read more about Dr. Leong’s work at the links below: 


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